Earlier this week, I attended the Sustainable Brands: New Metrics conference hosted by MIT Sloan in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a privilege to observe and participate in an event where business leaders have come together to act on climate change and other systemic risks. At New Metrics, the hot topic was, well, metrics: the cutting-edge of what we can measure statistically and probabilistically, with the goal of applying it not to measure climate change per se, but to the impact that leading businesses are achieving, in taking us towards a sustainable future.
One of the core philosophies of this conference is that brands—the web of ideas that surround a particular product of service—already have a great amount of influence in shaping society. Brands can become the leaders for creating the kind of society (and culture of social responsibility) that will drive a sustainable future. Businesses and corporations are increasingly beginning to realize that there is no future but a sustainable future. New Metrics (and Sustainable Brands) offers the platform for intellectual, social and corporate leaders to organize around the idea that sustainability and social responsibility must form the core, rather than the fringe, of how brands address society’s present and future needs.
Climate change is here. It’s happening. It’s affecting businesses’ bottom lines. The multinational corporations gathered at this conference feel the effects of climate change: one advantage of having eyes and ears (and interests) all over the globe is that systemic changes in areas such as climate become all too obvious. Are these multinationals having this conference out of the pureness of their hearts? No. Earth’s biosphere has been pushed far enough as a system that the effects of that push are being felt on the bottom line—in the same way that when we drive too fast and turn too sharply we can feel the car destabilize: we are pushing the limits of the system (in this case, of its capacity to adhere to the road). The tone and gravity of this conference is best summarized by the following quote:
“Companies are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the environment.” -Mark McElroy, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Sustainable Organizations.
At its most simple, that means that if the environment goes out of business, so does every single company around the globe. This pragmatic approach is what’s needed. Cordoning off larger and larger natural sites just won’t cut it anymore. A culture of philanthropy, where multinationals cause problems with one hand and solve them with the other, is an arcane vision of the world. Ultimately, we eat because of self-interest. We get up in the morning and go to bed at night because of self-interest. We approach every conversation and relationship because of self-interest: we want to be heard, and be known, and loved. We even do “pure” charity out of self-interest: to hold up our own identity as a do-gooder. That’s fine. We need more than that now. What this world needs is for us to grasp the idea that our destinies are intertwined. When the larger effects of climate change begin to show themselves, “children starving in Africa”—that tired trope—won’t seem so distant or so difficult to relate to anymore.
These business leaders have increasingly grasped those ideas. Our destinies are intertwined. Companies are engines for growth. Exactly. Sustainable Brands has gotten together to redefine what “growth” means, and in particular what it should mean for the purposes of building a better world. A few of the (very many) terms of art during this conference were “regenerative economy” and “context-based metrics,” which together mean that the economy should be headed in a direction that restores the environment’s capacity to support human life, and that measuring the human, social, and environmental impact of businesses small and large will become—and is becoming—a key way of driving forwards this new economy.
Another key term, of course, was “systems thinking.” This current of thought has provided these business leaders, activists, and thinkers with a rubric—a clear mental framework—to begin to address problems that are too nebulous and hard to pin down by more orthodox traditions of thought. The detached skepticism with which we sometimes engage with reality is too often hijacked by our own thirst for clarification, or rendered impotent by malicious forces that feed us just enough dissent, who approach with the intent not to convince us of their arguments, but to create a situation in which our own studied skepticism becomes the very sword that we fall upon.
Along those lines, another component of the conference was the candid acceptance that the time for deliberation has come and gone. The time for action is here. New Metrics focuses on answering the question of measuring progress on a global and local scale, and across political, economic, ecologic, and social contexts. The conference divided this neatly into two categories: progress already made, and progress that is still necessary. One of the greatest benefits of having a data-driven society is that when data speaks, we listen. And data, that modern god, has spoken. I could make nothing but a worksheet out of this essay, writing only “climate change is here. It is happening,” and even then, the point could (and should) be made stronger still.
I spoke to Jason Burnham, of Burhnam Marketing, about metrics of social temperament and how it is possible to track affiliation to old, present, or new ideas. As a psycholinguist with statistical inclinations, one of my biggest interests is in modeling and predicting the adoption, use, and disuse of ideas and social tropes through language and semiotics. People’s temperaments towards novelty and ideas can be divided into three basic archetypes: past, present, and future thinking. Future thinkers are quick to adopt new ideas, present thinkers are quick to strategize, and past thinkers are quick to analyze and reflect.
There is no question that all three modes of thought have a place in (and are in fact necessary for) virtuous group dynamics. The problem arises when, in the social dimension, an imbalance occurs between these three types of thinking. If a society (or a part of society) is too “past thinking,” it could lead to endless analysis and a scarcity of action. This, of course, is what happens with much of modern academia. Academics, by the very nature of the trade, are past thinkers. Because academia is defined by analysis and reanalysis, much of modern science is deeply rooted in past thinking. This is not to say that science shouldn’t be analytic—but rather that science needs a “marketing” division: a group of people whose skills are uniquely suited to pitch this analysis into the world, and turn it into action. This is exactly the service that Sustainable Brands is providing.
Part of the beauty and challenge of this global project—a sustainable future—can be summarized by these three ideas: it is uniquely science-driven among human endeavors, it needs to be meticulously strategized, and it needs immediate and decisive implementation. Past, present, and future thinking all have a place in this visionary, and necessary, project.
The work that Sustainable Brands is doing is groundbreaking, unique, but most of all, necessary. The urgency with which these intellectual and business leaders are approaching the problems of humanity is both humbling and energizing. More and more of the people that wield the most influence are coming to the realization that a sustainable future is the only future. There is a staggering amount of ground yet to cover, and an incomprehensible amount of information yet to be distilled, processed, and comprehended. But this ground is being covered. This information is being processed. Even then, more and more of us must take responsibility for our role in this global problem, and in its global solution. The time is now, not tomorrow. Tomorrow is when we will face the bitter reality: that we have cast ourselves out of yet another Eden.